This is a piece I did for my creative writing class a few years ago. Now I see it as Creative Nonfiction, although I knew nothing of such a category in those days. I am aware that there are descriptions of Scandinavia on this site that are better researched -- but how many of them have my eloquence, eh? You can get away with anything when you have eloquence! Just ask Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, or Saruman.

             A land caught forever in the grip of Winter. Huge drifts of snow, ice and howling winds; In the longhouses, burly bearded men seated at long benches, dressed in fur, partying in front of roaring fires, quaffing tankards of mead while gnawing huge legs of meat. And the horned helmets, let us not forget the horns. Scandinavians, you say. These must be Vikings, the famous Scandinavian raiders of yore.

            Perhaps. The Vikings were, strictly speaking, those Scandinavians who left in the longboats to raid and settle more favorable lands. And if any of the above description is accurate, it can only describe some kind of special occasion. The fire, the mead, the meat, all are extravagances – Mead that takes years to ferment from honey, huge fires in a timber-poor land, mammal meat from a supply of cows necessary for milk, or meat from game, maybe. And the snow and the fire would be yuletide, with the Yule log charred slowly by smaller wood burning beneath.

            The rest of the year, even most of winter, must have looked different – milk instead of mead, meat more often marine than of mammal, for Scandinavian fjords and their islands offshore provide much fishing.  Again, perhaps game, although that supply dwindles quickly, and the population reached its limit fairly early in the Medieval period. During the Viking age there were perhaps 300,000 people living in Scandinavia, divided into seven kingdoms of Norwegians, plus the Danes, Beowulf’s people the Götar (or Geats) and the Svears in what is now Sweden, and the Såmi in the mountains and way up north.

Perhaps they were most of them burly bearded men, but that’s not much of a distinction between Scandinavians and other people in a land and time where shaving was more difficult and non-physical pursuits were a similarly rare privilege. The Skalds, the longhouse bards, were usually one to each longhouse. And if they wore fur, well, no surprise in any northern clime. There were some times, in New England, when I wanted heavy fur to make the wait for the school bus bearable. Wind is an evil thing in winter.

As for the grip of winter – well, the frost-giants of the Norse stories were called evil for good reason. The people lived on the coast, where winter does not live – it lurks in the mountains, howls and blasts and whirls, but it rarely comes to the fjords. The Fjords were once carved by winter, cut deep by advancing ice and then filled when the sea rose again, but when winter held the coast, it held everywhere else in Europe and Northern North America.

The coast of Norway is, in fact, a fairly rainy, temperate place in the winter – much like modern coastal New England or Northern California and Oregon. Much rain, much misery, much gloom, but either no snow or snow washed away by rain. It is the same with Scandinavia, due to the Gulf Stream, whose warm air comforts most of Europe, shields it from deep winter. New England, in fact, is, among its inland folk, more familiar with the frost, for people are settled all the way into its interior. Oh yes, they know cold, and many of them choose to know it no longer – they flee to warmer climes.

But Norway, in Viking days, was the coast, and maybe the hills for grazing, and it was temperate. Same for Denmark, which was and is mostly coast. The Götar and Svears lived in most of the little land of their part of the peninsula that could be farmed; Götland was known for its comparatively rich farmland. They were content, it seems, as were the Såmi who braved the mountains, the northern forest and the tundra beyond. The Danes, and the Norwegians, were not. What made them so? What drove them over the sea?

The mountains, called Jotunheim, land of the giants, still called Jotunheim, still poorly inhabited, belonged and belong to winter. (As well as those Såmpit that live there. One wonders if they were ever connected with the Jotun.) Most people leave that land to the frost, and to its own devices.

It was not winter directly that drove the Norsemen over the sea. But it was the space it took up, for there was little room available to expand beyond the 300,000. Men could try their luck with the frost giants, conquer other kingdoms (as the Svears did eventually to the Göts), or head overseas and conquer those less likely to be wise to Scandinavian wiles. So over the sea they went. Perhaps the Indians of North America can sympathize with the plight of the Saxons, then: the Vikings and the later English were a similar sort of hooligans driven by similar goals, to find better land for better fodder, for the lands each set of hooligans came from had been pretty well filled, with steep hills and a poor soil that could support no more people.

 During the Medieval Warm Period, when the North Atlantic regions were only slightly cooler than they are today, the population in Europe was fed by great harvests and grew until it had overtaken most of the available land, leading to an exodus of Western Europeans to Eastern Europe, which was only just beginning to be built over. It was not this warm effect that drove the Scandinavians over the waves, but it was the effect of little land, and so much earlier because there is so little of Scandinavia to go around. Some 3% of Norway is arable, and there the cities of Oslo and Trondheim grew – the rest was only good for poor grazing, wood, game, and fine fishing. Like New England, as I continue to insist. And they had beekeeping, which provided the mead. But if a burly bearded man could not find any more land to claim or inherit established territory, he had to find something elsewhere. Like what happened in New England. Combine that with a warrior culture and you have a people eager to go places. Combine it with a religious culture (guess which one) and you have the same. For the Vikings, their battles were a major part of their religion, so you have a people very eager indeed to go places.

And they went many places. They went all over, to regions far beyond what most people of the time cared or dared to see. Over the North Sea to Scotland, Ireland (they erased many cities and founded Dublin), Iceland, England, Normandy, Greenland, Vinland and Markland, ‘cross an Atlantic calmed by a warmer climate than normal. They sailed up the rivers of what was to become Kievan Rus, named for one of their leaders (Rurik the Rus, the red), they skipped across the Black Sea and traded with The Khazars, they traded further south, into the Mediterranean (they called Africans “blue-men”), they traded everywhere they did not raid. Like the old stereotype of the Yankee peddler, although the Vikings were not known for being dishonest traders. Just prolific ones.

Of course, Europe had been trading across its length and breadth and far afield for thousands of years before the Scandinavians became the Vikings. It was this network that brought bronze to a peninsula devoid of copper and tin ore. Perhaps these men are remembered as traders, then, for doing most of the trading themselves, in their characteristic longboats, instead leaving it to rotund merchants with huge galleys.

But what people really remember about the Vikings – my people, at least, for the European history they study in their schools is focused on England and France– is their status as an all-devouring horde. To the Anglo-Saxons of the time, these men were not traders; they were not there to sell, although they made a great deal of money selling slaves in Dublin. They were in England to rape, pillage, and burn, and to come back to do it again, and again. They were there to go berserk, a word named for the battle-frenzy they were eager for. An all-devouring horde, to the Anglo-Saxons, much like the Saxons must have seemed to the Celts, the English and Spanish to the Native Americans, the Mongols to everyone in their way. Savages, savages, barely even human, killers at the core. Thieves and vagabonds, murderers and monsters the lot of them, who cares where they came from, they don’t belong here. But the Vikings made themselves belong, much like other conquering forces (The Mongols, though, could not rule from horseback, only destroy). They settled in Northern England, in Northern Coastal France, in the Northern isles of Scotland, in Iceland, a Greenland made greener by a better climate, Markland (Labrador), and Vinland (Newfoundland). North, north. They never settled very far south. The Danes, for example, for all their vicious raids, never conquered anything much more southerly than France.

The environment that the Scandinavians left is one they sought, as various peoples are wont to do – the Pennsylvania Dutch, for instance, settled in an area similar to their native Germany. It’s easier to survive if you can use the food-gathering technique you’re familiar with, instead of having to re-learn everything.  So the Vikings found new Scandinavia-type land, and it worked for them in Iceland, which (under the care of the same Gulf Stream that warms Scandinavia) is much like Coastal Norway, but flatter – more land for grazing and good waters for fishing, but even less timber. Mostly volcanoes. Settlement did not work in Greenland, once the small amount of green vanished during the Little Ice Age; Greenland is blessed by no warm current. And the attempt did not work in Markland and Vinland, perhaps because it was simply too far afield of even Iceland to be ruled effectively, much like Greenland – once the Little Ice Age began, contact with Greenland stopped. The North American settlements might have lasted in more favorable conditions, but mostly alone.

And if they had developed alone, they would not have developed much. There’s something about this northeastern region of North America, from Labrador down to Connecticut, that resists heavy settlement, especially in the interior. Resists passively, slowly, stealthily, but mightily.  Before the southern part was called New England, the place was not known to have many permanent Indian settlements very far into the interior. To this day, Maine’s western border is almost completely uninhabited. The remaining area, once well-farmed by Indians and then English, has mostly new-growth forests and low stone walls to mark what was once civilization, which will likely vanish in the same manner as the Vinland settlement, the land re-claiming what belongs to it. Every one of those stones was found when the plow halted and the farmer cursed as strongly as his religion would allow. Each stone is just a bit more incentive to head west for better land, like everyone else was doing in North America, like the Vikings had done a thousand years before them, the same lack of good land, the same lack of care for the natives in the new land, perhaps even the same joy of battle among the invaders – killing an Indian was no crime. A politeness and peace developing in those left behind, although perhaps this is as much a stereotype in Scandinavia as the chilly attitude is in New England.

And the gloom! Don’t forget the gloom. Any northern location has it, getting less sunlight than the equator. The Wendigo, the giant man-eater of Algonquian tales, was associated with winter and the north. But there’s a special kind of gloom that can only be felt when night is falling and you’re staring into a darkening forest, seeing the weak sun fall behind black branches, the shadows shifting from gray to blue, to black – you wonder what’s in those trees, what could that noise be, what will kill you if you step outside the light of the campfire. In Scandinavia the Norsemen could relegate gloom and monsters to the mountains, and they knew their hunting-forests well enough – but in Labrador, Newfoundland, and Puritan New England, the dark was right on the doorstep. Puritans of the area preached that the devil was not only real and in the world, but in the woods right nearby, watching, waiting. And New England has its fair share of ghost stories. Not as many as Newfoundland, though, which seems to have more ghosts, ghastlies, monsters, and chilling howls per square mile than any other place on Earth.

None of these stories need be real to cause fear. Fear needs little solid evidence to cause action, none at all most of the time.

So perhaps this, too, drove the Vikings away. Gloom and mist, and natives not weak and not retiring and not forgiving, constantly emerging from the shadow of the trees, such that a permanent outpost could not stand. The Vikings left. They left behind little, so little that it disappeared until the 1960s. The Scandinavians were not a people skilled at large settlement, as they never had to be, the Vikings even less so, save for Iceland.


The Scandinavians, for all their conquering and plundering and trading, have as their legacy the first human settlement of Iceland and the re-settlement of Greenland, the effects of the Danelaw in England, indirectly its later Norman invasion, the invasion of Ireland, and the first large-scale political entities in Russia. They were absorbed into England, and into Ireland and into Scotland and into Russia. Normandy was part of England after William crossed the channel, and it’s been French for a while now.  The rest is the old tales, written down and probably skewed in their writing by the newfangled Christianity of the region. And there is still the stereotype with the meat and the fire and the mead, and the horned helmets.

Even though no intelligent warrior would put something on his helmet that allowed an opponent to take the helm off. The helmets were absolutely none of them horned. Not one.

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